The Jacksonville Farmers Market has been a gathering place for area farmers to sell their produce for almost 75 years.
The market is at 1810 W. Beaver St., a mile or so from Downtown, and operates 365 days a year, dawn to dusk.
The market considers itself the oldest in Florida that is open to the public and a business incubator for dozens of seasonal and year-round area farmers and small business vendors who employ more than 100 people every day.
Stall rentals start at a few dollars a day.
The market also is a destination attraction for more than 25,000 weekly visitors.
It reports that it also serves an economically deprived area that is classified as both a Federal Empowerment and Florida Enterprise Zone by offering healthy food choices at a savings of up to 70 percent from traditional grocery stores.
The Daily Record interviewed Jeff Edwards, CFO for Beaver Street Fisheries Inc., which owns the market, and market General Manager Greg Tison for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.
These are excerpts from the full transcript.
The Jacksonville Farmers Market has been operating for almost 75 years. Why has it been successful?
Jeff Edwards: The market was founded as the Jacksonville Produce Market in 1938, on the site that it currently is, and it’s always had a significant and loyal following. We now have multiple generations of families and vendors that have utilized the market and taken advantage of it. In the old days, when there was more of an agricultural center right around Jacksonville, you used to have packing houses. Today we have vendors who come from area and regional farms to bring their product as they always have. If you go to our website, www.jaxfarmersmarket.com, you can see an historic photograph of the farmers market as it was in 1938 —horse-drawn carriages, carts still being brought to the market.
What can consumers find at the market?
Greg Tison: Consumers can find a variety of produce and we try to get as much locally grown produce as we can into the market. Because of consumer wants and needs, you see the vendors sometimes bring product in from abroad. Our culture and our society today have gotten to a point where we want certain products all year long. With that, we have to go abroad.
Edwards: We focus mainly on local and regional product. We don’t have the right climate to grow everything around here, so vendors have to supplement it with product from other places.
Tison: Shoppers can save quite a bit of money by buying in the farmers market because they can come in and save upwards of 50 to 70 percent on produce and kind of cut out the middleman aspect of the business.
What are some of the unusual items that you might find at the farmers market?
Edwards: You may hear over the next few months and few years of urban gardening plots that are occurring in cities across the country because, like Jacksonville, we’ve become more metropolitan in the last 30 or 40 years. We are going to be reaching out to that small farmer but also continue to reach out to the larger farmers in surrounding counties.
Tison: There’s a lot of talk among agencies to take vacant properties scattered throughout the community and develop them into urban gardens where people in those communities and those neighborhoods can raise their own food, and possibly raise enough food to go somewhere like a farmers market and sell that.
Where is the produce sold at the farmers market grown?
Tison: The geographic area would be Florida and Georgia. Some of it reaches up into the Carolinas. Depending on the season, we may have product coming in from as far north as Michigan. We have some syrup that comes in from Canada, and blueberries sometimes come in from Canada. It depends on the season, and what’s available.
Edwards: One good example is strawberries. They’re in season, so they start out in Plant City, and as we move further up into North Florida, a couple of weeks later, the Starke strawberries come in. The sources of the product follow the growing season and move south to north as you go through the year.
Tison: Another popular item right now is onions. Some of the onions are coming from Mexico, Peru, and in just a few weeks, the Vidalia onion season will arrive, which is a very popular onion that people love. It’s availability and where they can meet consumers’ needs.
Who are your consumers?
Edwards: One of the great things about the farmers market, it’s like a little United Nations. We have people from all backgrounds geographically, ethnically, income-wise. You’ll see people there who’ll drive in with a very expensive car and park next to somebody who rode in on a bicycle or walked in. It’s unique in terms of the cultural diversity of our people. We estimate that we get around 25,000 people a week at the farmers market. You hear different languages and see different cultural dress. It’s a very colorful and interesting place.
What are some of the major changes that you have seen over the past few years?
Edwards: Beaver Street Fisheries bought the market in 1986 from the original family. We bought the property thinking we might have use for the land one day to expand our company, but as long as the market took care of itself, and there was an interest in the community in the market, we would keep it open, and see what happened. And that’s what happened. In 2007, we had an opportunity to develop most of the original land and we had bought land adjacent to that property.
We took advantage of that with support from the City of Jacksonville and we rebuilt the market, all new, in 2007, on part of the original land and part of the adjacent land.
That was a big change because the market is actually bigger in terms of number of vendors and parking spaces, but it’s in a much more compact area, so it’s much easier to walk, and much more user-friendly.
We have the drive-up parking. People really appreciate the ability to drive up and park in front of a vendor.
And it’s very walkable, very easy to navigate. People really appreciate that.
How many vendors do you have on an average day?
Tison: We’ve probably got 40-50 that are fixed, that is, every day.
The market sells wholesale also?
Edwards: The market not only retails to the public, but it wholesales, so we have a wholesale business that takes place that starts about 3 in the morning and goes typically to 10-11 in the morning. We have restaurants that come in, suburban produce vendors, roadside stands, a lot of the produce that you see sold around Jacksonville and other venues, people are coming to the Jacksonville Farmers Market and buying it wholesale from our vendors.
What lessons have you learned in operating the farmers market to make it a success?
Edwards: It’s very important that the market is clean, that the vendors have quality product, that we have selection, that they’re well-stocked. Ultimately people are looking for a very good deal. They love the selection, and the freshness of the product; the convenience of the drive-up parking is great; the fact that we’re open every day of the year from dawn to dusk, so the convenient hours are appreciated. All those things are important to people.
We’ve added a restaurant that is open Monday through Saturday for breakfast and lunch — Andy’s Farmers Market Grill.
People are looking for a total experience, and it’s important that we pay attention to all the details that add up to that experience.
We have had music. We started with that this year, adding some musical guests. We look forward to doing more of that, maybe planning some special events.
The biggest thing we hear from the public is, ‘we didn’t know you were there.’ We’re the best-kept secret in Jacksonville.
We’re trying to do more to get the word out to the general public.
What are some of the lessons that perhaps you learned the hard way?
Tison: The biggest thing that I stress as manager of the market to the people who work there, not only people who work on our staff, but the vendors themselves, is that if you want customers to shop your business, it needs to be clean and you need to carry decent product. That’s what’s going to bring people out there.
Federal and state officials have been visiting the market. Talk a little about that.
Edwards: Last year, we had the Florida Agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam, visit us. We recently had the deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Washington. They’re interested in the farm-to-market arrangement that the Jacksonville Farmers Market supports. They’re interested in supporting farmers and they’re interested in seeing that nutritious product is made available to the local community at an affordable price and an easy way to acquire.
Over the past year we’ve encouraged vendors to start taking debit and credit cards and also EBT, formerly known as food stamps, the SNAP program, that is administered by USDA. Unfortunately with this economy, many of our people are on the EBT program, and if the vendors don’t accept EBT, they can’t shop in those places and take advantage of the product.
The farmers market is in what has been identified as a food desert, a neighborhood that is not well served by grocery chains or other sources of nutritious food, and the City of Jacksonville, the state of Florida, and the federal government and some other nonprofits in the community have come to us and asked us to work with vendors to get them to take these programs.
Not all vendors take it, but we have a sizable number of vendors that are doing it, and the response has been great.
How big of an operation is it?
Tison: We currently have 9 acres and we’re using most of it. We have one building of 28,000 square feet that’s a former grocery store that we haven’t put into use yet. We do have plans for that, for perhaps indoor stalls or maybe some additional types of vendors. We get a lot of requests for meat vendors, or bakery-type vendors, and we’re looking at that to expand the market. We already have a seafood vendor and from time to time, other vendors. There are a lot of other options that we haven’t fully explored yet, so we see that as a growth opportunity.